Everyone knows the story. Well, actually most people don’t know the whole story, but everyone knows the most memorable part of the story: Jonah being swallowed up by the whale, only to be spewed out on dry land three days later. Here’s the very brief account as recorded in the Bible:
And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish…And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 1:17, 2:1, 2:10)
An obvious and immediate question arises: did this really happen? We all know that it is scientifically impossible to spend three days inside the stomach of a sea creature and live to tell about it. Yet here it is, in the pages of Scripture, expected to be taken seriously. Many who discredit the Bible point to the story of Jonah to argue that the Bible is just a book full of fanciful tales and imaginary legends that we can readily dismiss.
So, for people like me who take the Bible seriously and believe it to be true, how do we explain such an absurd phenomenon?
Christians generally hold one of four positions when it comes to the story of Jonah and the whale. I will briefly list them and mention their strengths and weaknesses.
1. The story is allegorical
The first option is that the story isn’t literal at all, but more like a fairy tale with a moral point. If someone were to read the short four chapters of Jonah it becomes apparent that the fish is a mere side point to the story. The big idea is that God is a God of forgiveness, and that his mercy extends to even those we despise. Additionally, the story reveals that often we are unwilling to extend to others the very mercy that we have received from God. In short, it is a story about God’s grace.
There are some Christians who believe that the moral of the story is what matters, not the historical truthfulness of the account. They would argue that the events never really took place but are simply a legend used as a teaching tool, somewhat similar to Jesus using parables in the New Testament.
The strength of this approach is that it immediately alleviates any need to explain the impossible. One can still gain from the Bible the teaching point while not being hung up on the fanciful notions that the story includes. In that way, the problem disappears with convenience.
Yet this view has some significant weaknesses. The first is that the story is written more like history than a fable. Legends usually use generalities in the storytelling (ie. “long ago in a land far away”). But Jonah is written in a historical setting, with the names of real, physical cities (Ninevah and Tarshish) as part of the plot. The book also mentions the name of Jonah’s father (1:1). The whole account appears to be written so that the reader believes the events are actual, historical fact.
A second weakness in this view is that it creates all kinds of problems when interpreting the rest of the Bible. If the events of Jonah aren’t real, what else in Scripture isn’t real either? Was the exodus from Egypt just an imaginary story with a moral lesson? Was the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ just an allegorical teaching point? If you say that Jonah’s story isn’t real it becomes next to impossible to determine what else in Scripture isn’t literally true either. It also seems to betray a basic reading of the Bible, much of which is written as real historical events, naming real people and places and kingdoms that actually existed in the ancient world.
One final weakness with this view is that Jesus himself spoke of Jonah as if he were a real, historical figure. He makes reference to the story of Jonah—and specifically to the three days in the belly of the fish—as if he assumed it to be true (Matthew 12:39-40). So to say that the Jonah story isn’t real is to undermine what Jesus appeared to believe…dangerous ground to say the least!
As a result, I think it is fair to say that this first option is simply too problematic to be accepted.
2. It was a unique fish
A second option is to say that the particular fish that swallowed Jonah was uniquely designed by God so that a person could actually live inside of it for three days and nights. This idea comes from the statement that “God appointed a fish” to swallow Jonah. This means that a particular animal was chosen by God for the task, and it is at least theoretically possible that this creature had the proper features to sustain life in it’s own stomach.
This would mean that the swallowed person would somehow gain access to oxygen and be preserved from decaying in the fish’s stomach acids. It would be a horrible experience but potentially survivable. As far as I know, such a fish or whale does not exist in the animal kingdom. But is it possible that God somehow created and designed a specific fish for this very purpose?
This view is possible, at least in theory. God could have appointed a fish for this task and custom designed it for the needs of the job. But since Scripture gives very little indication that this was the case, other than a creative inference from the word “appointed”, this view is at best a minority perspective that most Christians don’t hold.
3. Jonah died and came back to life
A third option is that Jonah died in the whale’s stomach and was later brought back to life. This is a fairly common view among Christians and does have at least some biblical credibility to it. During Jonah’s prayer from the fish, he says “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2). The term Sheol is a Hebrew reference to the place of the dead. A modern-day synonym might be something like “the afterlife” or “the next world” or “the hereafter”. Jonah says in his prayer that this is where he called out to God. Therefore, many take this to mean that Jonah actually died in the fish (not exactly a surprising result), prayed to God from the afterlife, was then revived and spit out onto the land.
This does seem possible based on the text, and it eliminates the trouble of trying to explain how a person can live for days in the stomach of a fish. Not only does Jonah’s prayer open up this possibility, but Jesus’ interpretation of the Jonah account adds to the likelihood that Jonah had died in the fish. Jesus says “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). Since we know that Jesus died on the cross and rose again three days later, the fact that he would parallel his experience with Jonah’s time in the fish at least suggests that in both instances death and resurrection were the result. If Jesus really did taste death and come back to life, wouldn’t it makes sense that Jonah did also?
Perhaps. There seems to be good reason why this view is a very real possibility. But the weakness of this interpretation is that speaking of being in Sheol does not always mean literal death. For example, king David speaks about being delivered from Sheol in the Psalms on a number of occasions, even though he was not speaking of literal death (Psalm 18:5, 30:2-3). In such cases, Sheol is more of a poetic expression about the dire circumstance a person is in. David’s life was often in jeopardy from his enemies, and similarly Jonah was facing a hopeless fate in being swallowed by a fish in the open sea. It is possible that just as David was speaking metaphorically of being in mortal danger, so Jonah was referring to a near-death experience.
4. God miraculously sustained Jonah
The fourth position, and perhaps the most common among believers, is simply that God somehow kept Jonah alive in the belly of the fish. The explanation would certainly be beyond scientific understanding or human logic, but if God can create the universe with a spoken word, command the wind and waves to obey him, and raise the dead to life, can he not find a way to supernaturally keep a man alive in the middle of a fatal experience? Surely he could do so if he wanted to. It is not clear exactly how that would happen, but that God has the power to do it is of no question.
Since the story of Jonah gives no clear, definitive indication that the other three options are true, most Christians believe that Jonah really was swallowed alive and really did spend three days in the stomach of a great fish. That is the plain sense reading of the text. And as those who believe in the accuracy and truthfulness of Scripture, is easy to conceive—though hard to understand—of a scenario where God supernaturally preserves a man’s life. Nothing is impossible with God. In fact, the story of Jonah probably would not even make God’s top ten list of supernatural accomplishments recorded in the Bible.
Here’s my point. Jonah in the fish is far from evidence that the Bible is a fairytale book not to be taken seriously. The same people who espouse that idea also believe that the universe created itself out of nothing, evolved into an incredibly complicated ecosystem that can thrive and grow by random chance, that life arose from non-life, and that we are all here by accident and there is no meaning or purpose to life. Believing that is at least as “out there” as believing the story of Jonah, if not more so. The whale account doesn’t need to deter anyone from believing in the trustworthiness of Scripture at all.
Lately I have been reading The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. I’m a bit disappointed with myself that I haven’t read this Christian classic earlier on. It is a fantastic read, captivating and painful and inspiring all at the same time. If you are not familiar, Corrie Ten Boom was the leader of an underground movement in Holland during Nazi occupation that sought to save as many Jews as possible. Using her home as the base of operations, a “hiding place” was built into her bedroom where several people could be placed in the event of a Nazi raid. It was a brick wall built 30 inches out from the actual wall, covered with an aged bookcase, with the only access point being a sliding wood panel on the bottom shelf of the bookcase.
Knowing that it was only a matter of time before she was found out, Corrie packed a prison bag with some precious belongings—a Bible, changes of warm clothes, paper, pen, needle and thread, soap, medications, and a toothbrush. Though it wasn’t much, in the case of imprisonment those items would prove very valuable, providing at least some measure of comfort during the impending hardship.
After managing to keep their operations a secret for a few years, the day finally came when the Ten Boom house was raided by German soldiers. Several Jews were able to make it into the hiding place, including an elderly woman who was wheezing so loudly you could hear her on the other side of the wall! Corrie, who was sick in bed with the flu, prayed that God would somehow keep the hidden Jews safe during the raid and waited until the soldiers made their way into her bedroom.
Only moments later, a Nazi came bursting in, demanding that Corrie come with him at once. Corrie got out of bed and instinctively was about to turn and grab her prison bag, until she realized she had shoved it up against the sliding panel of the hiding place. Would she dare risk the lives of people in order to take the bag she had so carefully packed for herself? She recounts in her own words:
The man threw the papers back at me. “Hurry up!”
But he was not in half the hurry that I was to get away from that room. I buttoned my sweater all wrong in my haste and stuffed my feet into my shoes without bothering to tie them. Then I was about to reach for my prison bag.
It stood where I had shoved it in my panic: directly in front of the secret panel. If I were to reach down under the shelf to get it now, with this man watching my every move, might not his attention be attracted to the last place on earth I wanted him to look?
It was the hardest thing I have ever done to turn and walk out of that room, leaving the bag behind.
It might not seem like much to you and I living our comfortable lives, but for someone who was sure to be spending time in a harsh prison environment, having a bag full of life’s basic necessities and conveniences would have been a very precious thing. Yet it was God’s plan for Corrie to have to leave behind her prison bag—her safety blanket, so to speak—and face this trial alone. She would be walking into the unknown with nothing of worldly value at her side. It was just her and God. Would she have the faith to trust him to get her through?
While none of us are hiding Jews in our bedroom from Nazi’s, there is a parallel here for our lives. Each of us has our version of a “prison bag”, something that represents the plans we have made for our own lives that will get us through troubled times. We have carefully put together our school grades, or our resume, or our retirement fund, or our perfect family, or whatever else, that we hope will be the thing that makes us feel safe and secure. We are all trusting in something to get us through the unknown future that lies ahead.
For Corrie, that was the prison bag. It represented her plans to alleviate future pain and hardship. It, for her, was the thing that was going to make prison a bearable experience. Yet now here she was, stripped of her plans, facing what lay before her with nothing but God to rely on. Amazingly, this is exactly as God intended it to be. He didn’t want Corrie to have her faith placed in her prison bag. He wanted her faith to be placed in him. The only way he could accomplish that was to take away the very thing she cherished the most.
As she said herself, “It was the hardest thing I have ever done to turn and walk out of that room, leaving the bag behind.”
Let me ask you this question: What’s your prison bag? What’s the thing you are trusting in to give you a comfortable life? What would cause you to have extreme anxiety if you were left without it? What, if you had to part with it, would cause you to say, “This is the hardest thing I have ever done?”
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. (Psalm 20:7)
God loves us enough to strip us of the false idols that give us security. He alone is the one who can provide for our every need, and sometimes we learn that lesson the hard way—by being forced to leave our “prison bags” behind. God’s plans are not our plans, and he will often mess them up so that we stop relying on our carefully scripted life course and instead walk by faith with him.
Faith. It is the most precious thing in the world, “more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:7). In order for us to learn this, sometimes God takes away our gold. Sometimes he takes away our prison bag. He strips us of all that causes us to rely on ourselves so that we can instead rely on him. And this is a good thing, because he alone can be all that we need.
I’m not sure where you are today. Perhaps you are still carefully packing your prison bag. Perhaps your prison bag has been recently taken from you. Perhaps you are being asked by God to leave your prison bag behind. Regardless, the point is the same: will you trust God to take care of you no matter what, or will you put your faith in something that can only give you false hope? One way or another, because he loves you, God will make sure your prison bag isn’t there to save you when you need it. You’ll need to call upon him instead, and though it might be the hardest thing you will ever have to do, it will also be the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you.
The United States’ Declaration of Independence says that all people have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. It is interesting that the statement used is the pursuit of happiness and not just happiness itself. Apparently, it is evident that happiness is not easy to come by. We must pursue happiness because it is elusive. We all chase after it in one form or another, but few people ever really feel like they’ve found it.
While no one can control the circumstances in their life, all of us can control how we respond to them. Happiness comes from an attitude of contentment, which is a conscious choice more than it is a status of life. Being content is not easy, but the Bible does give us some guidance as to how we can be people who grow in contentment. The following are five things the Bible says will empower our contentment and therefore improve the level of happiness in our lives.
1. Don’t rely on your own strength
(Philippians 4:11-13) Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Try for a minute to force yourself to happy. It doesn’t matter what your current mood is, just make the mental decision to not feel that way any more and be happy. Ready? Set? Go!
Well, did it work? Of course not! We all know that happiness is not something we can just choose to do anytime we want. Our emotions are often beyond our immediate control. They ebb and flow on their own. Therefore, if we try to force ourselves to be happy we will inevitably fail.
The apostle Paul understood that the secret to being content no matter what situation he faced, whether it be good or bad, was to rely on Christ and not his own strength. If he was trusting in his own power to control his level of contentment, he was sure to fail. But Christ can do what we cannot. He has the power to produce in us what we cannot produce ourselves. And so the first thing we need to do in our efforts to be more content, no matter what life brings our way, is to rely on the strength that God provides. We simply can’t do it on our own.
2. Remember the promise of God’s presence
(Hebrews 13:5) Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Contentment happens when we are satisfied with what we have. But what if we don’t have very much? What if it seems like we are lacking in what we want or need? The truth is that we have more than we realize! This verse says that our level of contentment will increase when we remember this promise: we always have God. He will never leave us or forsake us. He is with us always. And if God is with us, what more could we need?
The beauty of this promise is that God will provide everything we need no matter what circumstances we face. Even though it may seem like we are lacking, the truth is that God is never lacking, and if he is with us, we are not lacking either. King David had this in mind when he famously wrote, “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). If God is present, all your needs will be covered. Knowing this and taking it to heart will help produce a life of contentment and freedom from the craving for material possessions.
3. Everything is on loan to us
(1 Timothy 6:6-8) Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.
The ancient Egyptians had some interesting beliefs about the afterlife. For instance, they believed that you could be buried with items that would somehow affect your post-death experience. Based on this belief, many Pharaoh’s were buried with enormous amounts of wealth in hopes that they could enjoy their riches on the other side of death.
This practice demonstrates the absurd level of desperation that many people have to cling to their possessions. And yet the Bible says very plainly that “we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world”. We enter life empty-handed, we leave empty-handed, and everything in the middle is just on loan to us for a little while. The fact that we obsess over stuff that is just going to get old and decay anyways shows how foolish we are. What we need is a change in perspective. Putting material things in their rightful place—as temporary gifts to use but not idols to cling to—frees us from the anxiety of trying to preserve them and allows us instead to simply enjoy them as they come and go in our lives. We can shift our focus to the things that really matter, such as laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20) by serving God and people through acts of love.
4. Change the measure of success
(Luke 12:15) And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
What makes a person successful? For many the answer is found in their material possessions. How big your house is, how nice your car is, how fancy your cell phone is—these are the kinds of things we use as indicators of a successful life. By this standard, those who have lots are doing well, and those who have little are not. But Scripture tells us that this standard of measurement is exactly the wrong way to think about things.
Jesus immediately followed up the statement quoted above with a story. There was a very rich man who decided one day to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store all of his goods. He then decided to kick his feet up and take it easy, since he had more than enough to last him the rest of his life. Yet a sudden and shocking reality comes when God enters the picture:
But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.
The point Jesus is making is that life is not measured by how much wealth you accumulate but by your relationship with God. Those who are rich but forget God are actually poor. Yet those who are poor but honour God are rich. If we are to be content in life, we need to have our focus on the right priorities, keeping an eternal perspective instead of an earthly and temporal one.
5. Weaknesses are opportunities for strength
(2 Corinthians 12:10) For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
No one likes to feel weak. I don’t know anyone who enjoys not being able to accomplish something or feeling like they don’t have the power to control their lives. Everyone wants to have the sense that they are in the drivers seat. Life, though, has a way of messing up those plans. Hardships inevitably come and give us a healthy dose of humility. The storms of life—financial strain, emotional distress, disability, betrayal, and the like—tend to remind us that we are not as in-control of our lives as we wish.
So what is one to do? There are really only two options. You can increase your resolve and try to control everything, which will end in failure every time, because some things are just beyond our ability to control. Or, you can accept those things as realities and change the way you think about them. The above Scripture says that we should do the latter and not the former. Rather than act as if we have no weakness, we can embrace our weakness as opportunities for God to show up in our lives. This doesn’t mean we roll over and give up on everything, but it does mean that those things which are beyond our ability to control we simply give to God and allow him to use them for his own purposes. We can be content, despite our weakness, when we know that God has a plan for them and will use them as occasions to show up in power in our lives.
What’s It Going to Be?
Happiness is something we can’t exactly control, but contentment, on the other hand, is a conscious choice. We can choose to be satisfied with what we have, and that choice is a whole lot easier when we realize:
- God will provide everything we need
- God will always be with us
- The things in life are just temporary
- True success isn’t measured by our standard of living
- Weaknesses are opportunities for God to show up
So, what’s it going to be? Will you keep on being dissatisfied with life and live in perpetual misery, or will you have a change of perspective and embrace what God has given you? The choice is yours.
The apostle Paul is a big deal in Christianity. He was hand-selected by Jesus to be an apostle to the Gentiles, wrote 13 books of the Bible, and is credited as being the most prolific missionary in the history of the Church. The only thing that seemed to match his productivity and zeal for the gospel was the amount of suffering he endured as a minister of the Word. It is right that we honour him and speak highly of his contribution to the faith.
At the same time, however, we should not go so far as to ascribe Paul with godlike attributes. That was the fault of the people in Lystra, who believed he was a god and tried to worship him as such (Acts 14). Some modern day Christians, though they would never call Paul a god, can also be guilty of overemphasizing his role or power or prestige. But the truth is that Paul was just an ordinary man whom God used in mighty ways as part of his divine plan for the kickstart of the Church.
While almost every Christian knows who the apostle Paul is, not very many have considered how much help he had along his various missionary journeys. The gospel simply would not have spread as it did if Paul was working on his own. God provided for him countless brothers and sisters in the faith who played a key part in his ministry, helping to extend his influence all over the Eastern world.
The reality is that behind every Paul is a network of helpers and supporters who make a ministry go. This was true back then, and it is still true today. In fact, I spent some time studying Paul’s ministry team and counted at least 76 people he mentions by name in the New Testament. This does not include the additional hundreds that aided him in the form of local churches and other passerby’s that are never mentioned in Scripture. Here’s what the list looks like:
- Barnabas (Acts 15:22)
- Judas/Barsabbas (Acts 15:22)
- Timothy (Acts 16:3, Philippians 2:19, 1 Timothy 1:2)
- Lydia (Acts 16:14)
- Dionysius and Damarius (Acts 16:34)
- Apollos (Acts 19:1)
- Sopater, Secundas, and Gaius (Acts 20:4)
- Philip (Acts 21:8)
- Mnason (Acts 21:16)
- Julius (Acts 27:3)
- Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25)
- Phoebe, a servant of the church (Romans 16:1)
- Priscilla and Aquila ( Acts 18:1, Romans 16:3, 2 Timothy 4:19)
- Epaenetus (Romans 16:5)
- Mary (Romans 16:6)
- Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7)
- Ampliatus (Romans 16:8)
- Urbanus and Stachys (Romans 16:9)
- Apelles and Aristobulus (Romans 16:10)
- Herodion and Narcissus (Romans 16:11)
- Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Romans 16:12)
- Rufus and his mother (Romans 16:13)
- Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, and Hermas (Romans 16:14)
- Philologus, Julia, Nereus, his sister, and Olympas (Romans 16:15)
- Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater (Romans 16:21)
- Tertius (Romans 16:22)
- Gaius, Erastus, and Quartus (Romans 16:23)
- Titus (Titus 1:4)
- Artemas (Titus 3:12)
- Zenas the lawyer (Titus 3:13)
- Apollos (Titus 3:13)
- Epaphras (Colossians 1:7, Philemon 1:23))
- Tychicus (Colossians 4:7, Ephesians 6:21, Titus 3:12)
- Onesimus (Colossians 4:9, Philemon 1:10)
- Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus (Colossians 4:10-11)
- Luke and Demas (Colossians 4:14, Philemon 1:24)
- Nympha (Colossians 4:15)
- Archippus (Colossians 4:17, Philemon 1:1)
- Silas/Silvanus (1 Thessalonians 1:1, Acts 15:22)
- Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:6)
- Crescens (2 Timothy 4:10)
- Carpus (2 Timothy 4:13)
- Erastus and Trophimus (2 Timothy 4:20)
- Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, and Claudia (2 Timothy 4:21)
- Philemon and Apphia (Philemon 1:1)
Out of all these people, the avid Bible reader would probably only recognize a handful of names from memory. Yet it is quite shocking and sobering to think just how many people God brought into the work of this apostle. Each one of them aided in one form or another the crucial work of spreading the gospel to the ancient world. While certainly some had more significant parts to play than others, the point is that each person still made a contribution to the mission in their own way and with whatever resources they had. It might not have seemed like much at the time, but just as a great cook can throw a bunch of random ingredients into a pot and stir up something great, so God can use our small parts to make something bigger and more wonderful than we could have accomplished individually.
Here’s the take-home lesson: For every Paul there is a Lydia, a Zenas, an Onesiphorus, and a hundred other less-noteworthy people who still have a part to play in God’s big story. Those of us who are just no-name Christians in the world tend to think we have little to contribute, that the big-time Christians are the real influencers and the ones that God is counting on to get the job done. But this is not Scriptural thinking. God uses ordinary folk like you and I to do big things too. We may not have much to offer, but collectively we have all the resources we need for Christ’s Church to succeed at the mission of reaching the world. Jesus did not leave his people unequipped for the task. He’s given us all the necessary tools, but it is our responsibility to add to the mix what we can and let God use it how he sees fit. We might be tempted to think that nothing will be lost without our help, but who knows what disaster might have befallen Paul if even one person had had that mentality? Each of us is like a brick in the wall, together building a strong tower that can be a lighthouse to the world, shining the light and love of God into a dark world desperate for good news.
So listen up, fellow Christian! You have a part to play. You have something to contribute. God’s plan doesn’t include sideline benches. We all need to get in the game. You may not feel like you have much to give. You might not believe that your part matters very much. But the team behind the apostle Paul proves otherwise. Even though many of those people are forgotten to history, they are not forgotten to God. They have received their eternal reward for their service to Christ’s Church, and so will we, if we do not grow weary in doing good. Don’t worry about your talent, don’t worry about your fame, don’t worry about your legacy. Just find the opportunities that God puts in front of you and jump into action. It might not seem like much, but a little in the hands of Jesus can go a long way. Just ask the boy with 5 loaves and 2 fish!
Paul might be the household name, but every person in his network mattered. God saw their work for him, and he honoured it. He will do the same for you. Remember that God has a different perspective than we do. He can see how all the parts fit together, how every small act has an effect down the road that is leading to the fulfillment of his plan. Even though we may not see the bigger picture, we need to trust that there is one and live by faith and not by sight. God isn’t looking for world-shakers, just ordinary Christians who faithfully serve right where they are. That kind of boring, simple strategy is what allowed Paul to make the gospel reach the ends of the known world, and the very same thing is what will happen today if every believer will be faithful with their tiny part in the kingdom. Offer what you can, God will take care of the rest.
Back in Bible times, false gods were easy to identify. Baal, Molech, Ashtoreth, Chemosh, Artemis, and others are all present in the pages of Scripture as gods competing for devotion to the God of Israel. In todays day, these names don’t really seem to pop up quite as much. But don’t be fooled—just because we don’t use the same names for false gods doesn’t mean our culture doesn’t have any. We most certainly do! I’ve put together a list of the top ten false gods of our day. There are only a few things to remember about this list.
- I am defining the term “false god” as someone or something that is highly revered, followed devoutly, sacrificed for, and looked to for meaning in life and deliverance from problems.
- I actually have no idea if these are ranked in order, but that they belong on a list of false gods I am fairly certain about.
- This list isn’t perfect.
- Ranking #1 I got right for sure.
Let the list commence!
Dishonourable mentions: power, entertainment, popularity
These days we bow at the altar of education. We believe that the problem with criminals is that they lack education and believe that having better access to it will turn them into decent human beings. We gasp at the thought of someone trying to amount to anything without a formal degree. We spend tens of thousands of dollars, and even go way into debt, in order to get an education we aren’t even sure we really want to pursue as a career path. We ignore what anyone has to say unless they have a bunch of letters at the end of their name. In short, we treat education like it is a god that will deliver us from the messy state we find our world in. And while education is important and an extremely valuable thing, it cannot deliver on that promise.
We revere people who are attractive and dismiss those who aren’t. Whole racks of magazines are devoted to all the beautiful people in the world and all the insignificant details of their lives. They tell us how we too can lose weight and become like them—you know, people who actually matter. We fat-shame overweight people. We spend money on products that promise slimmer waistlines and smoother skin. We fight back father time hoping to look young forever. We dismiss people if they are bland or bald, even if they are wise. We overlook horrible character flaws if someone is good-looking (ex. 50 Shades of Grey). In short, we put way too much stock in a god that is constantly fading away.
Beauty is fleeting (Proverbs 31:30)
We looooove to take it easy. The reason we work so hard is so that we can relax. Heck, even at work, if we can cut corners here and there to lighten the load we are more than happy to do so. People constantly talk about how they can’t wait for the weekend or the next vacation or the upcoming holiday. We frequently choose the path of least resistance in many areas of life. We do everything we can to avoid hardship, even if the hard things is the right thing to do. We desire life to be smooth sailing and when instead we hit stormy seas we are apt to complain about it. Somehow we have come to expect that life should be a breeze, enjoying the pleasure and leisure and good things in life without having to earn them with blood, sweat, and tears. The problem is that if comfort is our top priority, we are less likely to do the hard things in life—such as love difficult people, sacrifice for others, and follow through on commitments.
We infuse our bodies with all kinds of things to forget about our hurts, numb the pain, or spice up our boring lives. There are the big and obvious ones, like hard drugs, whether they be street drugs or pharmaceuticals. But there are less ominous substances we turn to also, such as pot, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol. Heck, sometimes we even use just regular old junk food because it makes us feel better (aka comfort food). Our bodies react favourably to these things at first because they make us feel good, but in the long run they are addicting substances that harm us in other ways. They promise a better life but can’t deliver on that for the long haul. It eventually becomes self-inflicted slavery to an addiction.
Wait a second…family? What is something like family doing on this list? Well, family is a wonderful thing—don’t get me wrong. But family makes a lousy god. People often think, If I could just get a husband I would be happy, or If I could just get a wife I would be happy, or once we have kids and a picture perfect family I will finally be happy. But these things aren’t true. Yes, family can bring great happiness, but it is a complicated happiness that is not unconditional. For example, if you are trusting a spouse to bring meaning to your life, you will inevitably disdain them when they let you down. If you are trusting in kids to make your life worth living, you will be left empty when they grow up and begin their own lives. The truth is that families are messy and difficult. They bring a lot of pleasure but also a lot of pain. Because people aren’t perfect (and hey, neither are you) family will never end up being exactly the way you always pictured it to be, which means you are destined to live in perpetual disappointment if that is where you have placed your hope.
Religion and God are not the same thing. Some people trust in God, but other people trust in religion. The first is a good bet, but the second in a major mistake. Religion itself has little it can do for you. Sure, religious people gain some benefit from their beliefs and devotion. They might have great peace in their lives. Prayer might help them to relieve anxiety. But in the long run, religion without God is an empty shell. You can tell when someone is trusting in religion and not God because they might say something like it doesn’t matter if it’s true because it works for me. This is flawed thinking. The belief that there could be life after death, for example, might bring a sense of comfort when a loved one dies (or you are facing your own death), but that is a false sense of comfort unless it is actually true. Religion offers comfort, but not necessarily real hope. Only God rightly known and understood can bring true hope, because it is a hope that is grounded in reality and not blind faith. Religion can’t deliver you, but God can.
It might be true that in our increasingly secular society, more people trust in science than trust in religion. We believe that science has all of the answers for us. We believe that if science confirms something to be true, it must be true—despite the fact that science changes all the time depending on recent findings. We trust that science will give us the solutions to all the plagues that face humanity. Science certainly does benefit us greatly. We enjoy the benefits of technology and medicine and physics every moment of every day. But if we think that science is the one hope for mankind we are fooling ourselves. Mankind cannot save itself. Rather, the one thing mankind is an expert at is self-imploding. Science can help ward that off for a while, but it cannot be counted on to deliver us in the end.
Fifty years ago people would talk freely about death but never hush a word about sex. Nowadays it is the complete reverse. Sex is everywhere. It dominates music, movies, video games, TV shows, advertising, and even just everyday life. To some degree this makes sense: sexuality is a part of human nature and an important and powerful one at that. But when we take a good thing and make it a god-thing we have gone too far. Sex, perhaps more than any other area of life, is considered to be untouchable by moral restraints. The one moral guideline for sex of any kind is consent. Other than that, have at it! But such a sexual free-for-all is also wreaking havoc in the world. Marriages fall apart left and right. STD’s and unplanned pregnancies are common. People are hooked on pornography in increasingly violent forms and at increasingly younger ages. We are destroying ourselves because of our licentiousness. We are even willing to kill our own children to have consequence-free sex. We really aren’t that far off from the ancient gods who required child sacrifice.
I’m on the fence about flip-flopping money and sex in the #2 and #3 spots. In the end I went with money here since even a lot of the sex industry is built on the love of money. Sex trafficking, for instance, doesn’t just demonstrate people’s love for sex but also their love for money. The Bible tells us “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Truer words have never been spoken. People will do just about anything if it means they can make money off it. We are willing to compromise our integrity if it means that profit is possible. I’m not sure that corruption happens more frequently than when money is at stake. While money is a necessary part of societal living, it should not be the dominant influence in our decision making. Unfortunately, it usually is. Money is one of our culture’s greatest gods.
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
You can cut down a troublesome weed by mowing over it, or you can pull it up be the roots once and for all. Every false god on this list is a ultimately just a symptom of an underlying god that rules over all: me. People are inherently self-centred and self-focused. Though we are still capable of being selfless at times, when push comes to shove, we demonstrate who we really are. We all are inclined to put ourselves first. If we can do something that benefits us, even at the expense of someone else, and if we know we can get away with it, we do it almost every time. Even some of our acts of generosity are self-congratulating. We post it on Facebook and make sure everyone knows that we are a good person. This runs completely contrary to what the Bible teaches. The Bible says not that we should embrace our true selves but rather that we must die to self in order to live as God would desire us to. We must put aside selfish ambition and put God and others first. Ultimately, we need to be “born again” and become new people, changed by God from the inside out.
Humanity is broken. We all know it. Things are not as they should be. As a result, we are all looking for answers to solve our problems. My fear is that people are turning to the wrongs things for hope. They are trusting in false gods that cannot deliver them. In that sense, we are lost. As I have said before, humanity needs intervention from the outside. We need help and deliverance by a force more powerful than we. God is our only hope. He alone is the real God of this universe, and the good news is that he loves us and can help us and has a plan for us. But that is of no use to us if we continue to ignore him. I realize I might just sound like a wacko nutjob to someone who doesn’t believe in God or is not particularly “religious”. Nevertheless, I would encourage you to think long and hard about it. Is there anything in this world that is truly worthy of our hope? Or are we broken beyond repair? Thousands of years of human existence has proven that we are not on an evolutionary trajectory upward. We are on a never-ending cycle of chaos. The only way we will ever escape this mess is stop turning to gods that can do nothing but let us down. We must turn to the One True God who is our ever-present help in times of trouble and know that he has it all under control and will sort everything out in the end.
Reading the Old Testament is kind of like eating a box of assorted chocolates—there are parts that seem all sweet and wonderful, but the next thing you know you are hit with something that makes your face turn sour. Few things in the Bible can create this reaction quite like the Old Testament laws. Sooner or later, every believer has to resolve the issues that arise from those seemingly strange and unnecessary rules God gave to the Israelites thousands of years ago.
Have you ever tried reading through the Bible from page 1 and found yourself stuck at Leviticus? Or have you ever had a skeptic of Christianity throw in your face the unusual Old Testament laws and then pronounce, “Christians like to pick and choose what they believe about the Bible!” Beard lengths, eating shellfish, wearing clothes with mixed fabrics…what in the world are we to make of these confounding parts of the Bible?
While the Old Testament law can seem pretty intimidating, it is not nearly as confusing as it seems. There are several important principles that one needs to keep in mind when trying to make sense of it all. With the right framework in place, the OT laws can reveal a lot to us about God, his call on our lives, and the plan of salvation that was fulfilled in Christ.
The Law of Love
The first thing we need to know is that the OT law is ultimately about love. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus was asked by someone which command of Scripture is the greatest of them all. He responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Many people do not realize it, but these are direct quotations from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18). Jesus is saying that the sum total of all the law is ultimately about loving God and loving others.
This gives us a great starting point to work from. Since we know that love is the goal of God’s commands, we can look at individual laws and try to determine how they fit that agenda. While admittedly some of the OT laws are very strange upon first reading, we know for sure that they fit into a broader perspective which is intended to move towards love for God and people. Knowing this will keep us from getting off track with our conclusions about the OT law.
Another important thing to keep in mind is the constant refrain in the Old Testament concerning God’s holiness. Holiness is mentioned 171 times from Exodus to Deuteronomy (the primary books of the law), making it a central emphasis within the commands.
For example, God says in Leviticus 11:45 “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” This illustrates the mindset God has behind his commands. The fact that he is a holy God and desires to be served by a holy people is why the OT laws are given. The implication is that unholy people and unholy practices are not fitting in the presence of a holy God.
The word “holy” simply means to be “set apart”. It means that the object that is considered holy is to be treated with special reverence and care. It is to be considered sacred and worthy of honour. Since God himself is the holy object, the people who serve him must also be holy. Unholy people and a holy God simply do not mix.
This helps to explain many of the commands that are given in the law. Things such as special washing before worship or the giving of sacrifices when coming to the Tabernacle all were ways of demonstrating that a person knew they were approaching a holy God. There is no doubt a central purpose for the sometimes tedious laws was to drive home in an unforgettable fashion that God is to be considered with the utmost respect. He is not to be trifled with or addressed flippantly. God established this premise by laying out in great detail and in a variety of ways that he is a holy God and must be treated as such.
A People Called Out From the World
God chose the Israelites to be his covenant people in the era of the Old Testament. This was not because they were any better than other people groups—in fact, the Old Testament reads much like a broken record of the constant Israelite failures. Nevertheless, as God’s chosen people, Israel was to be a holy nation, set apart from the other surrounding nations who served other gods. In order to distinguish his people from those pagan nations, God set forth many of the OT laws for this very reason.
For instance, it was common practice in some ancient civilizations to perform child sacrifice in order to appease the gods. The Ammonites in particular were known to participate in child sacrifice to their god Molech. To ensure the God of Israel was not identified with this practice, a specific law was put in place condemning child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5).
Another less extreme example is the prohibition on tattoos (Leviticus 19:28). One might wonder, what does a tattoo have to do with anything? But historically we know that tattoos were part of pagan worship practices among the Canaanites. Thus, if Israelites were to readily mark their body with tattoos, it would signal to those around them that they are also partakers in Canaanite worship. To use a modern comparison, it would be like a Christian today walking around with a shirt that bore the star and crescent moon symbol that is typically associated with Islam. Such imagery is not consistent with one’s beliefs. In that same sense, the prohibition of tattoos was to relieve any confusion that the Israelites might be participants in pagan idolatry.
It is difficult to know just how many OT laws were given for this purpose, and which specific laws they might be. Leviticus 18 specifically states that some of the laws in that chapter are in direct response to pagan worship practices of surrounding nations. But what of the rest of the law? It is hard to know. This is because good chunks of ancient customs of the day have been lost to history. We know that tattoos were common in Canaanite worship, but what other practices might have associated the Israelites with pagan idolatry? It is at least plausible, if not likely, that some of the more quirky and detailed OT laws exist for this reason. We simply do not know for sure, but because we know that at least some of the unusual laws had solid rationale behind them, we can safely assume that others did as well. It is not a stretch to believe that when the Israelites first heard God’s laws, they would have made complete sense to them, given their knowledge of culture at the time. We must simply admit that the distance between today and the ancient world will create some question marks we can’t resolve, but that does not mean we have no reason to believe that sound logic is behind many of the laws that initially sound strange to our ears today.
Categories of Law
Another helpful tool for understanding the law is to consider how each law breaks down into specific categories. Some theologians have noted that the 613 commands given in the law can be roughly categorized into three major groups: moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law.
Moral law are commands that reveal what God considers to be moral and immoral behaviour. It is essentially God showing us his ethical code. The straightforward command “You shall not steal” in Exodus 20:15, given as part of the 10 commandments, is an example of moral law. It is simply a judgment of right and wrong behaviour. The moral law, unlike the other two categories of law, is something that is still relevant for Christians today.
This is a major source of confusion for many people. Christians are sometimes accused of showing favouritism with the Bible based on the fact that they generally esteem the 10 commandments while overlooking the prohibition against eating shellfish, for example. But this is not actually favouritism at all. Christians are not picking and choosing what they follow from the Scriptures. Rather, rightly understood, Christians are keeping the ethics of the moral law given by God (since they are universal and timeless in nature) while doing away with the civil and ceremonial law as passing realities (more on this in a moment). We can know that Christians are right to pay attention to God’s moral law because the New Testament repeats dozens of Old Testament commands as still binding on Christians for today, and in each case, the command repeated is considered to be part of the moral law.
The second category of law is the civil law. The civil law are the rules and regulations that govern the nation of Israel and its individual communities. It functions much like modern day laws do, for the purpose of giving order and structure to society. Since God did not drop the Old Testament law out of the sky to the entire world, but rather to a specific nation, he included in that law the civil statutes and regulations that should govern them as a people. The civil law taught Israel how to run a court of law, penalize lawbreakers, demand restitution, and so forth. It functioned much like how the court system does today.
The civil law is no longer binding on Christians because we are not the same category of people as the nation of Old Testament Israel. Christians today are part of the family of God scattered abroad, not gathered together in one solitary country. Therefore, we live as those who are attentive to God’s moral law but not to Israel’s civil law. The civil law was given to a specific group of people for that specific time period in history and is not transferrable to other groups of people or other times in history.
The third category of law is the ceremonial law. These regulations include those that taught Israel how they were to conduct their worship practices. It included specific attire for Israelite priests, instructions on how to build the Tabernacle and it’s accompanying instruments of worship (such as the altar, table, etc), instructions for feasts and festivals, and the various sacrifices people were to make to the Lord. It was basically a worship manual for the Jews, God showing them the way in which he desired to be worshipped.
Like the civil law, the ceremonial law is no longer binding on Christians for today. This is because the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was fulfilled in Christ’s atoning death on the cross (Hebrews 7:23-24, 9:12). All that the ceremonial law entailed was ultimately pointing to the coming of Jesus and his once-for-all blood sacrifice. Now that Christ has satisfied the demands of the law, we no longer require animal sacrifice or mediation by a priest. Those were temporary institutions of worship that have been done away with in the New Testament era.
Failing to distinguish between these categories of law has led to a lot of confusion among both believers and unbelievers. The general rule of thumb to follow is this: if a command from the Old Testament law is repeated in the New Testament, it remains binding for believers. Those laws that are not reinforced are part of the era that has been done away with. This is not to say that God has changed his mind or that his commands are inconsistent. Rather, it is to say that God’s unchanging law had to be implemented in a way that fit the context it was entering into. Since the Christian Church and Old Testament Israel are not synonymous realities, we cannot treat them as if each should function the same way. In fact, Scripture explicitly says they should not.
Old Covenant vs. New Covenant
In theological terms, what we are talking about is the different between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The Old Covenant, which God originally established with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-7), passed away with the coming of Christ. Some confuse this to mean that God himself changed from the era of the Old Testament to the era of the New Testament, but that is not the case at all. God never changes, but how he chooses to interact with humanity sometimes does. In his wisdom, God established at least two eras that would progressively reveal his unfolding plan of salvation over the course of human history.
This New Covenant interacts differently with the law than the Old Covenant does. The New Testament points out a few keys ways in which the New Covenant differs from the Old when it comes to understanding God’s commands in the Old Testament Scriptures. Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews are three books in particular that emphasize and explain the distinction between the Old and New Covenants.
For example, Paul describes the law as holding people captive in the Old Covenant (Galatians 3:23-27). This is because no one can ever obey the entire law. Part of the reason God gave the law was to show people their sin and need for mercy from God. One cannot help but read the Old Testament laws and think to themselves, I’ve broken many of these laws many times over! And that is precisely the point. God wanted to break down man’s self-righteousness and show him his need for grace. Romans 7 is dedicated mostly to explaining this idea further. The law was intended by God to show people their sin and need for a Savior.
It is mistaken to believe that Old Testament people were saved by keeping the law while New Testament people are saved by faith in Christ. Hebrews 10:4 says “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”. Instead, the law was designed not to take away sin but to demonstrate that (1) sin required the penalty of death, (2) a substitute could die in one’s place, and (3) a final substitute sacrifice was coming. Ancient Israelites, like Christians now, were/are saved by faith (Romans 4:2-3). The law was never intended for the salvation of souls. It’s primary purposes was to show the existence and pervasiveness of sin while demonstrating that forgiveness was possible through the death of another.
Law After Redemption
It is significant that the law was not given by God until after the Israelites were ransomed out of slavery in Egypt. The order of events is intentional. It aims to teach us that the law is not a means to be saved, but rather the fitting response by those who have already been saved. In other words, obeying God does not make one right with God. Rather, being made right with God is what fuels our reasons to obey him. Redemption comes before obedience. God was showing the Israelites that he is their Deliverer and Protector, and therefore they ought to obey him, just as a loving father deserves to be obeyed by his children because he has already proven his love and commitment to them.
As such, the law (especially the ceremonial law) is rich with symbolism. The high priest would function as a mediator between God and his people, just as Jesus is our great High Priest, a mediator between God and his people (Hebrews 4:14-16). The shedding of animal blood in sacrifice for sins was to show the cost of salvation, just as Jesus is the lamb that was slain for the sins of the world (Hebrews 10:10-14).
The law functioned as outward reminders of inward realities. The outward regulations about clothing and washing were intended to show the inward state of the heart. The practice of physical circumcision was to demonstrate the reality of spiritual circumcision (Romans 2:29). The high priest laying his hands on a goat—symbolically transferring sin to it—and releasing it into the woods was an outward demonstration of the inward reality that God has taken our sins away. The entire system is one gigantic foreshadowing of the coming of Christ and the reality of salvation by faith in him through his shed blood on the cross.
With an understanding the like the one given above, the OT law becomes not just a confusing part of the Bible to be avoided, but rather one that is rich with wisdom, teaching, and applicable principles for today. When Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he is speaking about the Old Testament. Even the Old Covenant system which has been done away with is still “profitable” for Christians. We would be wise to study it and learn from it to aid our spiritual growth and understanding.
The entire Bible is a cohesive unit that progressively builds upon itself. We live in an era where the law has been fulfilled perfectly in Christ, and thus we are freed from being enslaved to it. Instead, we can have Christ’s obedience counted to our credit by faith in him. Our sins can be removed by his death in our place simply by believing on him for salvation. Thank the Lord that we don’t need to perfectly obey the law in order to be loved by him or attain eternal life! If that were the case, we all would be hopelessly lost. But as it stands, God has made a way where there was no other way. He bore the penalty of sin himself so that we could be made right with him and begin an everlasting relationship with our heavenly Father. Love like that can be found nowhere else.
Few things in recent memory have been as divisive as the Trump presidency. Even among evangelical Christians, opinions vary and are at times contentious. This is understandable, but we need to make sure our personal viewpoints are kept in check with what Scripture demands us to believe about Donald Trump. We have no right to go outside of biblical bounds on any matter, and therefore I think it could be healthy to remind ourselves what the Bible definitely says about Trump that we all ought to agree on.
1. Donald Trump is a creation of God and made in His image
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
2. Therefore, he is bestowed with intrinsic value is and worthy of dignity
With [our tongues] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God…My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9-10)
3. Without God’s forgiving mercy, he is a sinner who will perish forever…and in that sense, he is just like you
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
4. God loves him
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
5. We must also love him
Love your neighbour as yourself. (Mark 12:31)
6. Christ died for him
[Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
7. God desires for him to be saved
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
8. We ought to desire for him to be saved
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
9. We ought to pray for him
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
10. We are to honour him as a God-appointed public official
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:17)
11. He was raised up to become president as part of God’s providential plan
[God] changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings. (Daniel 2:21)
12. God can turn his heart anytime He wishes
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)
13. Scripture’s command to use speech for building up also applies to how we speak about him
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)
14. We are to worry more about personal holiness and evangelism than we are about politics
For this is the will of God, your sanctification; (1 Thessalonians 4:3)
15. God is still in control
For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:28)
The current state of higher education is one of the greatest tragedies in North America today. Institutions that were built on the premise of intellectual rigor, technological advancement, and the shaping of human beings who can contribute to society has been hijacked by the liberal agenda. College and University campuses are now better known for safe spaces and trigger warnings than they are for education. Being micro-aggressed and marching in protests are seemingly more central to the educational experience than actual learning. What once was a central bulwark of society is relegating itself to an irrelevant laughingstock.
Of course I am being over-simplistic in my judgment of post-secondary education. There are decent schools and decent teachers out there. But without a doubt the overarching trend is not towards the building up of young minds but the tearing down of the Judeo-Christian roots of the educational system and Western society. Gone is the concept of objective truth; gone is the notion of universal morality; gone is the reverence, or even tolerance, of any notion of God. These are ideas that have been largely tossed out onto the dump heap and left to rot. It is the first time in North America that we are attempting to march on without these foundations, but the new structure of secular humanism is a wobbly tower that is destined to collapse.
It is a sad experiment we are playing. The lab rats are the precious minds of young people who are buying into the self-centred, intellectually dishonest postmodernism they’ve been spoon fed since kindergarten. And make no mistake about it, that is the agenda of modern education. It is not about genuine discovery. It is about the formation of a specific worldview. Just as Christian Bible colleges aim to produce sound followers of Christ, so mainstream colleges and universities intend to produce sound followers of secularism. I understand that this is to be expected, but it is still lamentable.
As someone who mentors young people, I am sincerely bothered by the future that lies ahead of them. The current education system, especially the post-secondary form of it, is failing to prepare people for the real world. We are now well into this experiment and the results are piling up. Numerous grad students are walking away from their college or university experience $50,000 in the hole and with a degree that hardly opens up any employment opportunities to them. But, on the bright side, they did manage to march against oil companies and cry quietly in their safe space. Groan.
I really care about young people. I want them to flourish and succeed and be all that they can be. I want them to go to college or university and be trained to be critical thinkers, though ideally this training would have already begun years earlier. Some charge Christian folk like myself with blind faith and having abandoned reason, but I could not disagree more strongly. I believe that Christianity, like any other worldview, ought to be thrust into the public sphere for scrutiny and testing. I have put my own faith through such a wringer and discovered that it was up to the task. Unlike some believers, I am not afraid of having my beliefs questioned or having core doctrines challenged. It is only through such a process that a long-lasting faith will form. Young people need to have their beliefs “thrown into the fire” so to speak to see if they can withstand the heat. Truth, morality, and religion are all open for a pummeling, but modern secularism is guarded like a quarterback during practice. The educational system should be part of this idea-testing process, but alas it seems to have abdicated this responsibility due to playing favorites with worldviews.
Here’s the reality: the educational world is not meant to be a safe space. Safe from physical danger, yes, but not safe from the most dangerous force in the world: ideas. Academia is supposed to be one of the main arenas where competing ideas duke it out in a fight to claim superiority. The pursuit of truth requires a sort of intellectual violence against lies. There once was a time when this pursuit was noble and sought after, but that is no longer the case. The whole point of micro-aggressions and safe spaces and trigger warnings is to ward off ideas that one might find personally offensive. Yet how can a mind grow if it is not opposed by differing viewpoints? How can ideas that are better than others rise to the surface if they are not allowed to stew in the same pot? The answer is that they can’t, and what we are left with are young people who are more confident of their own viewpoints without ever having them battle-tested. It is a kind of pride that is totally unwarranted and unearned, much like the the participation trophy that probably still sits on the bookshelf at home.
The “snowflake” cultures of post-secondary schools are troubling for me personally, parentally, and pastorally. As an individual, the coddling of students from ideas other than their own is both dangerous and demeaning. It is dangerous because it fails to allow for the free exploration of ideas and a robust and resilient worldview to be formed. It is also demeaning because it assumes that people can’t withstand intellectual confrontation and be better off as a result. I do not feel this serves human beings well as individuals or as a collective society.
As a father, it is painful to know that I simultaneously want to encourage my children to pursue education and yet also wish for them to steer clear of the destructive liberal ideologies that are not allowed to be questioned in post-secondary education. I have no problem with my children knowing that other beliefs exist out there other than the ones I wish to pass on to them; however, I want my children to discover those beliefs in a setting that encourages a fair fight of ideas, not one that stifles opposing viewpoints.
As a pastor, I am concerned that the young generation has done away with truth and objective morality to the point that humanity will eventually erode into animalism. That is, in some sense, what is already taking place. The secular worldview is one that rejects belief in God but still wishes to borrow some of the benefits of a Christian worldview. For example, the modern notion of “follow your heart” has the possibility of leading to all kinds of moral chaos. What if my heart is telling me that I’m superior to other races? Or that I sexually desire children? Should I still follow my heart then? The secularist would answer “no”, but has no reason to give for why that would be. If there is no God and no absolute morality, then all that is left are opinions. There’s no such thing as right and wrong. Therefore, the education system that seeks to oust God is also ousting the very moral system that our civilization was founded on. It is nothing short of a revolution in the truest sense, but we ought to know that kicking the legs out from under a chair will certainly lead to injury. One glance at college campuses will verify that many students steeped in secularism behave in a way that is not tolerated anywhere else in society. I would rather live in a world that can participate in thoughtful, rational discussion than one that is run by subjective feelings, mob violence, and public shaming of those who don’t fit into the modern mould.
These issues matter to me as a Christian because I care about truth. I care about a flourishing society and the good of all people. I want people to have the abundant life that Jesus came to offer them. The farther away from truth we stray, the farther we separate ourselves from the wholeness that truth can bring. I am convinced that the state of modern education is bent on abandoning any real pursuit of truth, and the inevitable result will be damage to young people and society in general. As long as we continue to create environments that aim to protect ideologies instead of test them, we won’t get any closer to the truth. My heart aches for young people who are growing up in a culture that has so marinated them in these ideas that they can’t even recognize it. Unless somehow common sense, logic, and a hard-nosed pursuit of truth resurrect, our generation will continue to stagnate in safe spaces. A resurrection like that though will require a miracle almost of the same magnitude that left the tomb empty 2,000 years ago.
This year marks the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation began when men such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli began to protest certain beliefs and practices of the Catholic church. Believing the church had strayed from biblical Christianity, they sought to reform the church and bring it back to its true form. Half a millennia later, the differences still exist between Protestants and Catholics and resolution has not been achieved. The reformers eventually developed what became known as the 5 solas, which are 5 core truths that define the essentials of the Protestant Reformation.
I remember the first time I ever read the 5 solas. I was in my early twenties and had recently been re-examining the faith that I grew up with. For the first time in my life, I was reading the Bible for myself. I soon discovered that certain convictions were developing in me as I read Scripture and sought to make sense of it all. I couldn’t quite articulate them, but I could tell when someone else “got it”. Then, one day, I stumbled upon the 5 solas. Immediately I thought to myself, this is it! This is exactly what I’ve been thinking! This is exactly what Christianity is all about! It came as a great relief to me that my blossoming faith was rooted in rich history and that others before me saw in Scripture what I also believed I saw.
Since this discovery, I have learned a lot more about the Reformation, church history, and Christian theology. I have no reservation saying that I am a Christian who stands proudly in the reformed heritage, and the 5 solas to this day still make up the core convictions I carry as a follower of Christ. The more I read Scripture, the more I see these beliefs present in the pages of God’s Word, and the more firmly established they become in my life. They shape my beliefs, my practices, and my preaching. Anyone who has been influenced or discipled by me has been under the influence of the 5 solas—whether I have bothered to tell them or not!
On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I’d like to share with you the 5 solas of the Reformation and commend them to you for the health and vitality of your soul.
1. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
Scripture is our highest authority in life. It is the place where Christians formulate doctrines and evaluate practices. Though truth can be discovered in many places, the Bible is God’s standard for truth and all truth must be judged against it. Since the Bible is God’s Word, it is perfect and trustworthy in revealing to us who God is and who we are in relation to him and each other.
I have a saying I regularly use in my Bible teaching: It doesn’t matter what I think, and it doesn’t matter what you think. What matters is what God says. This philosophy shapes the way I preach the Bible. My goal is not to be clever or novel, but rather simply to do the best I can to show people what the Bible actually says. One measure of a good Bible teacher is how well they can help other people see in the Bible what they see themselves. Authority does not come from a pastor, and it doesn’t come from a church. It comes from God’s Word. Therefore the Bible must be absolutely central to guiding a Christian’s life.
Reformed Christians believe that the Catholic church assigns too much authority to the pope, the institution of the church, and the writings of the early church fathers. I tend to agree with that assessment. As such, the Catholic church has formed various beliefs and practices that are hard to square up with what the Bible says. The reformers sought to turn people away from other sources of authority and back to the Word of God, and in that quest I happily join them.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)
2. Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
How can a sinner be justified before God? The answer to that question is perhaps the most central belief in Christianity. God is holy and we are not; therefore, God has every right to punish sinners and condemn them for breaking his laws. This is a major problem, since all of us are guilty sinners before God. Is there hope? Can anything be done about this looming dilemma?
The answer from Scripture is that a person can be justified before God by faith alone. Faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ is the only means by which a person can be saved from hell. Good works will save no one. No one will have their sins forgiven because they have earned it. No one can earn God’s forgiveness, and those who try are destined to be found unrighteous in God’s sight. But those who trust Christ, who have faith in his death on the cross for their sins, are forgiven completely and made right before God.
It is not faith plus good works, or faith plus monetary donations, or faith plus baptism. No, salvation comes through faith alone, and we must be insistent on making that clear; otherwise, we are guilty of preaching a false gospel.
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)
3. Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
One way to understand grace is to contrast it with justice and mercy. Justice is when people get what they deserve. Mercy is when people don’t get what they deserve. Grace is when people get what they don’t deserve in a positive sense. The reformers rightly emphasized that every good thing a person experiences is a gift of grace from God, and that the ultimate gift anyone can have—eternal life—is available solely as an act of God’s grace. No one deserves salvation, and no one earns it. It is a gift that God freely bestows.
This means that no Christian should ever have a prideful spirit. No one earns their own salvation, and so no believer should ever look down on anyone else. Any Christian who is prideful has forgotten that their salvation was by God’s grace alone. They didn’t earn it. Rather, it is a gift of God’s generosity. Therefore, the right spirit for a follower of Christ to have is of thankful humility.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
4. Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
The free gift of salvation comes to mankind through one person and one person alone, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). In this remarkable statement, Jesus is claiming himself as the exclusive path to God. While it is a popular idea that there are “many paths to God”, the Bible—and Jesus specifically—says otherwise. Christ alone provides access to God and eternal life, and any other path ultimately leads to death.
Christians have stood on this unpopular and inflammatory claim for 2,000 years, even at great cost to themselves. We do so not because we desire to be divisive, knock down other religions, or think we are superior to others. Rather, we simply agree with Jesus! If he really is the only path to God, then we are compelled to follow him. And because we love people, we desire to point them to the only place they too can find salvation for their souls. Simply put, Christianity is all about Jesus.
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
5. Soli Deo Gloria (to the Glory of God Alone)
God alone is worthy of glory. He is worthy of our praise and adoration and dedication. Christians seek to live not for their own fame, but for the fame of God’s name. Salvation is ultimately not about boosting our self-esteem, but about God displaying his glory through the death and resurrection of Christ for our sins. That is the greatest act of love the universe has ever known and will ever know. It follows, then, that believers should be dedicated to orienting their lives around God and not themselves. In this way we experience the joy of freedom from self-centredness and fulfill the task we were created to do, which is to glorify God.
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
I believe with all my heart that the 5 solas are a helpful and beautiful way to summarize the Christian faith. They are not equal to Scripture itself, but they do help to rephrase the points of emphasis in God’s Word in a way that is memorable and clarifying. I, for one, am grateful for the work of the reformers, as imperfect as they were. I’ve never felt very comfortable when people refer to guys like Luther as “the great Martin Luther”, but I nevertheless believe that God used the reformers in great ways to strengthen his Church. Protestants are by no means perfect, but I do believe that we are faithful to the teaching of the Bible, and in that belief I commit myself and my life as a minister for God. May the Reformation, 500 years later, continue to propel God’s true and powerful gospel into the world for salvation of many souls!
The violent outbursts that took place this past Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia have left us all stunned, saddened, and angered. The images of thrown debris, pepper spray, swinging clubs, and bodies flying as a car was driven into the crowd are enough to make one recoil with pure horror. With over 30 injured and one dead, the events are nothing but tragic and heartbreaking.
The racist roots of this event cannot be overlooked. Things went wild when a group of Alt Right protestors (those who believe in the supremacy of whites) was met by an equally passionate mob of the antifa (those who aim to confront racism, by force if necessary). Moments later chaos ensued, and the Charlottesville police force seemed unable to contain the mess. The resulting bloodshed will be on everyone’s mind for the foreseeable future, and rightfully so.
President Trump was criticized for not condemning the racism strongly enough. In his initial press conference, he specifically did not mention any of the groups involved and barely whispered a hint of any racial undertones. It seemed as if he was avoiding it on purpose, and many were quick to assign motives for such misleading talk.
Such an approach is one I cannot accept. My job is not to be a political analyst, and my concerns for this issue are not mainly political in nature. I am a follower of Jesus first and foremost, and as such I believe it is my responsibility to speak up against such evil and violence with conviction, truth, and hope. To my knowledge I have never written explicitly against racism on this blog, something that is not exactly intentional but perhaps overdue to be addressed.
Let me say it clearly: racism is evil. Biblically, it is a sin against God and other human beings. To treat another person as lesser-than simply because of their ethnicity or the colour of their skin—or any reason for that matter—is wicked and vile. Racism has a long history not only in America, but all over the world and all throughout human history. It has always existed and will continue to exist as long as sin remains in this world. But that does not mean we should accept it or fail to fight it. Quite the contrary. We have a moral obligation to oppose it, even at great cost to ourselves.
There are some who have tried to sanction their racism as being an expression of their faith or religious beliefs. This effectively amounts to a double-sin. Anyone who attempts to link their racist thoughts or actions to the Bible, serving God, or Christianity, are either sorely mistaken or intentionally deceitful. They are assigning evil to God, thus adding to their guilt.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20)
Christians have not always been innocent of racism. I am not naive to this fact and I am not happy about it. But a true reading of Scripture makes it clear that racism is morally wrong and punishable by God. It is one expression among many of the fallen nature of man, and certainly one of the most grotesque ones at that.
The Bible declares that human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and therefore have inherent dignity, value, and worth. Showing prejudice against others is considered a sin (James 2:9), and God himself shows no partiality toward anyone (Romans 2:11). One reason Jesus Christ came was to break down “the dividing wall of hostility” between people groups and create one human race under his loving rule (Ephesians 2:14). God’s offer of salvation is open to any person from any people group without exception (Galatians 3:28). Heaven will one day be the most multi-ethnic place in the universe, filled with people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). The final state of mankind will be one where racism and all sin is eradicated and God reigns over those who love him and follow Christ, living in perfect peace and harmony (Revelation 21:1-4). Until that time we are to treat others as we wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12) and share the gospel with every people group on the planet (Matthew 28:18-20).
It appeared to many that all hell broke loose when violence erupted in Charlottesville. This is not exactly true. All hell broke loose a long time ago when sin entered into the world. Racism is evil and therefore will one day be banned forever to hell, exactly where it belongs. When I say, “to hell with racism”, I mean it quite literally.
Until then, I am calling on my brothers and sisters in Christ to take a stand against racism. We have the most potent weapon against it of all—the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel is the good news that God forgives sinners and makes them a part of his family. God is unifying this broken humanity in which we live, and of which we are a part, and redeeming it for his glory and our good. I am a part of that story, and I invite you to be a part of it too. We cannot be silent or fearful in such times. Love compels us to speak up and seek change.
I would like to add one final thing. To those who are racist themselves, who believe they are superior to another based on ethnicity, I say this: I do not hate you. Others might, but they should not hate you either. Hate cannot be overcome by hate. It can only be overcome by love. Not only do I not hate you, I actually love you. And far more importantly, God loves you too. He desires better for you than the pride of racism that you are living in. He is calling you away from the darkness and into his light. God will forgive you of your sin if you repent and follow Christ. He will begin to heal the hate that enslaves you and set you free to love and be loved. There is a better way. You can choose it if you want to. But please know that to reject his offer is to reject him personally, and that will not end well for you. As far as I can search my own heart, I am not a racist person. But that does not mean my hands are clean. I am a guilty sinner like everyone else. I do not speak to you from a position of superiority—that itself would be sinful pride! Instead, I am inviting you to find what I have found: new life in Christ, a place where sinners can be forgiven and renewed by the power of God. In Christ there are no favourites, but we are all precious in his sight. You cannot redeem yourself, but you can be redeemed. And you need to be redeemed. There is hope. Don’t let it pass you by.